The lonely guy

When I first saw Dalton James, he was eating the entrails of a dead baby.
It was July 1996.
The Magnolia Lounge in Fair Park played host to the Open Stage production of New York playwright Nicky Silver's Fat Men in Skirts, the first and possibly best of three Silver comedies produced last year by Dallas theater companies.

P.B. Miller, my predecessor as Dallas Observer stage critic, wasn't taken by the script, a typically bleak, emotionally savage family comedy from noted neurotic Silver, who tends to capture precious little human truths inside great brooding nets of vindictive dialogue and hateful behavior. But Miller declared James' work in a lead role "one of the more impressive performances you'll see on a Dallas stage this year." Lawson Taitte, the Dallas Morning News stage critic who's shown little patience with local theater performed for shock's sake, was similarly able to transcend Silver's killing-floor humor and locate the white-hot ember of James' performance. Taitte wrote a small but glowing profile of the actor for the Morning News--a rare honor bestowed by the Belo giant on a performer most in the Dallas theater community had never even heard of.

In Fat Men in Skirts, Dalton James played the shy, sheltered son of a rich couple on the brink of divorce. The plane that carries him, his mother, and a baby sibling crashes and strands them on an island for years, where the son deteriorates from a "sensitive" adolescent with a fetish for Katharine Hepburn movies into a cannibal rapist with a fetish for Katharine Hepburn movies. His mother is his first victim.

The sheer feral artlessness of James' acting was what hooked me. The way he mixed depravity and innocence, rage and fecklessness was remarkable because it was so unremarkable, a tender evocation of inhuman urges. When he stooped to eat the insides of the infant who died in the plane crash, James stuffed the red licorice dangling out of a baby doll into his mouth and moved it around cautiously, like a kid would sample a suspicious new vegetable thrust in front of him. That little touch made it horrifying and wickedly funny. It was a kind of alchemy of which only a talented, intuitive actor is capable--an observance about human nature turned into a creative choice both canny and instinctive.

The performance may have been more than the mannered playwright Silver deserved, but it attained the high standard I've come to expect from Dalton James the actor--a standard that has been surpassed by Dalton James the performance artist.

Showcased during two weekends last December at the Swiss Avenue Theater, James' one-man show Wet Willie Loves Pyro remains the most intimate work I've seen mounted on a Dallas stage during the last five years--and, for all the blind alleys it occasionally wanders into, the most ambitious. Clocking in at almost two hours with intermission, Wet Willie Loves Pyro--with several original songs; a smattering of choreography, lighting, and sound effects; and a wading pool, a baby doll, and a rubber fish--was an epic love story about a firefighter and the barfly lover who slays a dragon in his honor. Intertwined with myth was a stream-of-consciousness Rubik's Cube of confession whose face changed constantly as James told stories about his grandmother, whose husband had just passed away; the fundamentalist brother who bunked on his couch for a few days yet steadfastly ignored all evidence that Dalton was gay; a leaky air-conditioner unit; and a lonely roadside rest stop in a town called Fate, Texas.

The entire show, from music to stage design to the mammoth text, was conceived and performed by James, a 31-year-old man who has never worked with either of the city's Equity theaters--Dallas Theater Center and Theatre Three--or any of the triumvirate of Dallas' Little Theaters with Big Talent--The Undermain, Kitchen Dog, and New Theatre Company. The $2,000 budget for production and publicity was financed by James, producer Michael Starcher, and investors.

James has divided his time among poetry readings at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary and Club Clearview, performing his poetic monologues with evangelical fervor; smaller but equally impressive one-man shows with Extra Virgin Performance Cooperative and DecaForms, the annual multimedia showcase organized by area choreographers; and roles in area productions of (mostly) jet-black comedies by America's fringier playwrights. Dog, a locally produced short film written by playwright Molly Louise Shepard, directed by Mary Hestand, and co-starring James, recently screened at the 27th Annual USA Film Festival.

James has the sly face of a 15-year-old up to no good and a physical presence that's at once gangly and pantherlike. His work reflects the gentle, sweetly frustrated impasse where extremes cross--he's a gay man whose romantic yearnings are shocking for their universality, their childlike expression, and their reckless hunger. By his own admission, James is conflicted, caught between two worlds he's experienced some frustration trying to reconcile--the hetero, blue-collar "normalcy" of a childhood in Port Arthur and the thrills and spills of Dallas' urban gay ghetto. But what's the connection between the fat, "sensitive" kid who grew up the youngest of three brothers in a chaotic Texas family and the slim, supremely confident (onstage, anyway) raconteur who's looking for love among the denizens of Dallas' gay nightlife?  

James admits he sinks into depressions from the pull both worlds have on him. The biggest irony here--and the kind of salty twist that might show up in one of James' own monologues--is that a gay artist with one foot still in the closet restores so much dignity and humanity to the gay experience. Through the self-deprecating wit and frankness of his tenderhearted tirades, Dalton James is the little kid impatiently rubbing away the chalk line that divides the playground by sexual orientation.

Discussing the virtues of Dalton James with some of the people who've worked with him is a bit like requesting Marlon Brando's presence at an ice cream party--they're happy to comply before you've even finished the invitation.

"He's so good, it's scary," says Karen Robinson, a Dallas choreographer, general director of Deep Ellum Opera Theatre, and co-creator of DecaForms. "His heartbreak is absolutely universal; there's no need for an audience to intellectualize the work. The bare unpretentiousness of it is startling."

"Brilliant," insists John Navarro, curator and publicist at the Bath House Cultural Center, the White Rock Lake art space where James has performed a couple of times. "Dalton's in touch with the lunatic inside everybody. Sometimes he takes you off in right or left field, but he always takes you with him."

"I've never seen his kind of intensity on stage before," declares Clebo Rainey, the Papa Bear of the North Texas poetry scene; from Club Clearview's Friday night slam competitions to readings at the Mandalay Irving Arts Festival or the Deep Ellum Arts Festival, he's the guy you'd better not piss off if you want to read poetry in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "He's also a real sweetheart, and something of a recluse. I hope he's not too nice a guy to make it big. Some people call me a self-promoter, and I say, 'You're damned right.' Dalton's got the goods to go as far as he wants."

Navarro, who works directly with the artists showcased at the Bath House to publicize their work, has similar concerns. "Usually, theater people have no problem selling themselves," he says. "It's the visual artists, the painters and sculptors, who need to be taught. Let me tell you, there are some real divas in this town who don't have half the talent Dalton does."

Given the intensely personal nature of Dalton James' monologues, there hangs around him an aura of secretiveness, the sense that there's a large part of him he's keeping under wraps. On stage, James' riffs are like midnight visits under the Christmas tree to peer at the mysterious contents beneath the paper. Watching James perform feels like catching him in such an act. Consequently, he's not always comfortable being witnessed.

Clebo Rainey remembers an incident when James was helping him raise money to go to the 1995 National Poetry Slam in Ann Arbor, Michigan. James was on the Dallas slam team, and the group of them went out with Clebo to the 8.0 Bar, where owner Shannon Wynne had agreed to donate to the travel fund if they'd perform.

"The 8.0 on a Friday night at 10:30 is not your typical poetry audience," Clebo recalls with a laugh. "The house was packed to the rafters with drunk, rowdy yuppies. The poets were standing on a riser side-by-side very uncomfortably. James couldn't read that night; he handed me his papers and sat down. You could tell he was a little frightened, and it discouraged him."

Karen Robinson has worked with James on many occasions, including Dark Jewels, her own 10-minute piece, which they performed together at 10 Minute Max, a multimedia showcase in Austin; and for Dallas' DecaForms, Point of Departure, James' 10-minute psychocomedy about an obsessive relationship that had Robinson changing from frilly ballerina to leather-clad slut onstage while a series of voice-mail messages go from pleading to threatening, culminating with James' booming, guttural voice promising: "I'm gonna turn you in to the health department, bitch."

James assures me that the piece was very much comic, if acidically so; Robinson admits she didn't know whether to laugh or not. Indeed, she uses the word "scary" to describe James a couple of times in a couple of different conversations. She finally clarifies that, saying that although she admires him very much, she has sometimes been scared of and for him.  

"Sometimes, I think Dalton could be the devil himself," she says. "You can see the darkness inside him when he works. One time we were rehearsing a scene together where he's supposed to ceremoniously hand me a letter opener and let me cut his throat. He did it with such ferocity--was so into the character--I thought one of us was going to get hurt. When I told him this, he cracked that smile of his and said, 'This is theater!'"

Robinson confides, "I think for a while, some of us were worried about Dalton, but we've come to realize he's a lot stronger than that. It's just when you see someone burn that brightly, you can't help but fear they're going to flicker out."

When discussing James' work with the man himself, two subjects put a burr under his ever-present baseball cap. We'll call them "the performance artist thing" and "the gay thing."

He will grudgingly refer to himself as a "performance artist," because there's no better word to describe the variety of what he does in one show.

"The title 'performance artist' has connotations that are extremely not good," James says, right after he has recoiled in laughter when I mention the clunkiness of the phrase. "When people hear it, they see a whole picture, a visual, but not where the parts fit together."

Maybe the slightly moony "holistic art" would work better, in the sense that what James and artists of his ilk do brings together the expressive power of the feet, hands, tongue, and heart. Unlike pure drama or comedy performed on a stage, where all those elements are subordinated to serve a larger canvas, the best of what we call "performance art" honors each of these as a separate instrument worthy of its own aria.

Dalton James on stage can seem similarly divided, utterly dual, but with every piece engaged in a race to weave its own fresco on the tapestry of scarred romanticism he unfurls. And so the phrase "one-man show" refers not just to James before the show (he writes, directs, and composes, and he blocks, designs, and places the sets) but during, when he is locked in one of his rhythmic, hip-swaying, arm-swooping chants about the tender trap of love.

And then there's "the gay thing," which James discusses with a weariness that reflects the post-Clinton doldrums, the inevitable slump after the realization that our current president couldn't singlehandedly save us from homophobia--other people's or our own. He says that he'd only been "sort of out" at work (he didn't talk about it, just assumed everyone else knew) when Wet Willie Loves Pyro opened last December. Suddenly, Morning News critic Lawson Taitte was favorably reviewing a show full of references to "golden showers" and ravishing male underwear models in the Sears catalogue.

"Some people from work came to see Wet Willie," James says. "I don't think they knew what to expect, but they were very supportive. But I have to admit, I was a little embarrassed. It was my own baggage, not theirs. If I was straight, I wouldn't have thought twice about it."

Wouldn't you love to be a fly on the watercooler the next business day when co-workers who'd only known James as that shy, quirky "glorified secretary"--his words to describe his survival job--were still processing the actor's love poem to his own penis, which compares its grandeur and purpose to a conductor's baton in mid-symphony? The homoeroticism in James' monologues expands and contracts like breathing lungs, sometimes puffed up with an adolescent enthusiasm for pornographic observation, other times exhaling with a tiny nonsexual detail (the scary thrill of holding hands with another man in public for the first time) that makes you exhale with the recognition of a shared emotional experience.

"It makes me sad to think some people out there wouldn't come see my shows because I'm gay," James laments. "But then again, it annoys me to think that some people would buy a ticket only because I'm gay. I'm 'out' because I'm not going to lie about myself just to please other people. But I also can't do anything about it, you know? I'm not particularly thrilled [with being gay]. I'd rather have a simpler, more mainstream life."

He smiles and shrugs. "Then again, it's not like I could go off and be a cowboy somewhere. I don't want to live that far from Blockbuster."

These are painfully honest feelings you wouldn't expect a gay man in 1997 to express, much less a gay artist. Thanks to the fragmented and sometimes self-defeating national, state, and local homosexual leadership in America, "out" performers have become spokespeople for the U.S. gay community--for better and for worse. And yet, Dalton James' work is more sophisticated--not to mention just plain funnier--than "out and proud" Larry Drake's The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me. James possesses a Lily Tomlin-like ability to snicker at countercultural dogma even while he savors the desire for acceptance behind it. His riff on a bartender's theory of his own outer-space origins in Wet Willie is about as close as any artist can get to deserving the "I'm not laughing at you, I'm laughing with you" defense that satirists often employ to defuse charges of misanthropy.  

Meanwhile, his unabashed references not to gay sex, but to gay romance sledgehammer a traditional propaganda weapon--the pathologizing of homosexuality. In his work, James rhapsodizes about handholding, ear-nibbling, and slow-dancing with his head on another man's shoulder. He doesn't celebrate gay love as much as he personalizes it.

Naturally, James' work taps precious, primal feelings that a gay man can become anxious to reconcile with his adult political view of the world. I hear myself pressing James with my own theories on the various advantages of sexual minorityhood, encouraging this man to feel the way he's supposed to feel about his homosexuality--the way I want him to feel, dammit. Soft-spoken and ever polite, his long arms folded over his long legs, he resists my good-natured harangues with beguiling flashes of his toothy, open-mouthed smile.

"I'm tired of the stereotype of the flamboyant, drug-abusing, AIDS-ridden queen," he says at one point. "Let's move on."

He is tired of this stereotype whether it's used by straights against gays in public policy or by gays against straights in the arena of arts and letters. While it may not seem like it, James on stage poeticizing about his grandmother's life after his grandfather's death, his father's heart attack, and his fundamentalist brother's obsession with the Rapture constitute a step forward in gay art--a step closer to shattering the glass walls that ghettoize the homosexual experience as something other than human. Dalton James' work cries out for a return from the long exile.

The only other gay writer I can think of who's paving this road is essayist and radio commentator David Sedaris. In his brilliant new book Naked, he discusses his mother's death from cancer, the way his family essentially ignored his immigrant Greek grandmother, and his father's tirades. In discussing his role in events that are supposedly heterosexual, he forsakes feathering a gay ghetto to focus on cultivating a gay perspective.

Both of them ardent smokers, Sedaris and James also share a taste for the kind of bitter rhetorical martinis that Dorothy Parker concocted with her light poetry. It's a short stroll from their nicotine-stained fatalism to her flippant tangos with death. In his introduction to The Portable Dorothy Parker, Brendan Gill referred to Parker as "the guest who wouldn't leave" when her long flirtation with suicide ended in natural death at the age of 71. Sedaris could equally overstay his welcome unless vitriol bows to wisdom, which Naked suggests will happen.

So far, Dalton James hasn't turned his own neediness against the world. Playing a gay man in whose grandiose notions of love lead to a lapse in safer sex practices in Fire and Bones, he becomes an aghast witness to "the mini-inquisition of my sexually deviant one-night stand past" played for the "back rows" when he goes to get an HIV test. He imagines that the interviewing nurse at the health clinic transforms into the crocodile from the Disney version of Peter Pan, the fangs of her boredom and contempt grinning maniacally through a faux professional demeanor.

Comparisons to other dark comic scribes are simplistic compared to the variegated universe of "performance art," which for James is more about performance and less about art.

"I haven't gotten to the point where I consider myself a writer," he says. "But you know, I think the written word is just a paintbrush, anyway. It isn't anything until someone reads it aloud."

James is shy almost everywhere except the stage. At performance and rehearsal, he focuses with a seriousness that hardens his boyish features into the devil Karen Robinson mentioned.

A recent Tuesday-night rehearsal for A Bench at the Edge, one of two short plays James appears in for Bucket Productions (he also scored a dance piece by Robinson for the show), is not going well. There's a simple explanation: James and the play's director, Jimmi Wright, a 21-year-old blond wisp of a guy who carries himself like a man twice his age, rub each other the wrong way.

As we stand outside the Swiss Avenue Theater before the evening starts, I joke with James not to leave out any petty differences on my account. He is not a happy man right now: He has just been told that his "glorified secretary" job will be eliminated at the end of May. And he has come to dread rehearsing A Bench at the Edge. James smokes Marlboros with an enthusiasm one usually reserves for oxygen.  

The first run-through is strong. James and his fellow actor, Eric Reeves, aren't off book yet, but the bitter poignancy of playwright Luigi Jannuzzi's two-character dreamscape--set, literally, at the edge of death--is conveyed. James plays Man One, a vaguely sinister 20-year coma veteran who encounters Man Two, a despondent cuckold contemplating suicide, while loitering at the rim of the abyss. Man One seems to take great pleasure in human suffering and premature death, until his hypocrisy is starkly revealed by an offer of help from Man Two.

The second read turns tense when director Wright interrupts near the beginning to worry aloud that a certain vibrancy has been lost from the previous week's rehearsals. "I'm panicking!" Wright frets, stubby cigarette smoldering between two fingers. He will interrupt with more concerned questions. Do the actors know that this scene will be played with a loud, rhythmic musical track in the background? Yes, James answers, responding with a question of his own: Does the director know actors can't coordinate dialogue with music that isn't there?

And on and on with an increasingly bitter edge, until Wright suggests the pair of them take a cigarette break and hash out their differences. They walk outside the theater and proceed to yell at each other for a good five minutes, each voice projecting admirably through the Swiss Avenue Theater's steel door and concrete walls.

While Wright's detailed direction has a badgering quality to it, virtually every one of the criticisms he offers after the rehearsal scores a bull's-eye. James has surrendered by now, and quietly sits through the director's criticisms and praise. The rehearsal ends on a cordial but strained note.

You get the sense, watching him work and talking to those with whom he's collaborated, that nobody is as hard on James as James. This lends his work a certain urgency. In A Bench at the Edge, his character spends idle time peering into the abyss. The other characters James performs, the ones he creates, execute thrilling and dangerous trapeze acts over the same yawning pit. Spectators--especially those who've met James and marvel at his boundless creativity and gentle humor--hold their breath with fear that he might slip and fall in.

Like his friend and collaborator Karen Robinson, I think he's a lot stronger than people familiar with his hair-trigger honesty might assume. If this artist feels alone, it's because there aren't many people standing in the world he's begun to create--a new and tentative place between his childhood memories and adult desires, where boys who like other boys can discuss their daydreams about love and family without feeling ashamed of themselves.

Dalton James appears in two one-acts May 8 through May 24, Luigi Jannuzzi's A Bench at the Edge and Woody Allen's Death. Call (214) 528-5725.

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